Fictional events - yes; fictional places - not quite

Heather Gudenkauf
Opinion - Books 24 January 2017

Heather Gudenkauf on how various places in her home state of Iowa have been integral to her fiction


A quaint college town surrounded by craggy bluffs and thick woods and the desperate search for two missing children; a renovated bookstore settled near the banks of the rushing, winding Druid River and the mystery surrounding the birth of one little boy; a close-knit farming community and a small, rural school - the scene of an intruder with a gun and unknown motives; a large Midwestern city; and finally, a century farm complete with a decrepit barn, a creepy root cellar and lots of family secrets. All settings for my first five novels. Fictional accounts? Absolutely! Fictional locations? Not quite.

I've lived in Iowa most of my life, and in each of my novels I have steeped meaningful real-life locations into my fictional settings. There's this wonderful sense of community and family in the landscape and the people of Iowa, and I guess that's what I'm interested in trying to capture.

However, even the most tranquil and beautiful of locations can hold dark secrets.

In The Weight of Silence the Willow Creek Woods was fashioned from Swiss Valley Nature Preserve, a beautiful forested area that I have spent hours hiking through, and Catfish Creek, the body of water that snakes its way through the woods behind my current home, and where the seeds for my first novel sprouted.

Also plucked from my own life and dropped into my second novel, These Things Hidden, is River Lights, 2nd Edition, the bookstore that is the model for Bookends, where much of the novel takes place. Bookends is based on my favourite independent bookstore, a gorgeous 1870s building, the former Pusateri's Grocery, with its original wooden floors and tin ceilings. Visitors are invited to bring their own dogs into the store, and will be welcomed with an organic doggie treat upon arrival. The staff is always there to ask about my family and is always ready with a book recommendation. I am never disappointed with what they suggest. While the bookstore in These Things Hidden is the scene of a very dramatic event within the novel, whenever I enter the bricks and mortar storefront it feels like coming home.

Are you sensing a pattern here?

In my third novel, One Breath Away, the small farming community of Broken Branch was inspired by the anything but broken real-life town of Wellman, Iowa. Wellman, where my parents now live, is a community of about 1,500 with a prominent Amish population, and epitomises what is common to so many Iowa communities: a wonderful sense of family and generosity to those in need. Wellman is also where this Iowa girl, who grew up in a mid-sized town, learned about cattle farming and the difference between a heifer and a cow - and there is a difference!

The location of my fourth novel, Little Mercies, is a city with a diverse population and a vibrant cultural backdrop not unlike Iowa City and Des Moines. Little Mercies also tells the story of a social worker's fight to save her infant daughter and a wayward 10-year-old searching for home.

Finally, in my most recent novel, Missing Pieces, Penny Gate is set among the corn fields of Iowa, and is integral in telling the story of journalist Sarah Quinlan and her unrelenting, dangerous search for answers. Sarah must travel to her husband's sleepy home town and learn to navigate the suspicious stares and the secretive nature of the townspeople in order to discover the truth behind a decades old murder that keeps leading back to her husband.

To me the setting of a story is just as important as the main characters and the plot. The setting breathes life into a story, gives it context, sets the tone. So I hope you'll come visit my Iowa through the pages of my novels or even in person. We'd love to have you.

Missing Pieces by Heather Gudenkauf is out 26 January (HQ, £7.99)

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